Fringe Theater

taipei fringe

Fringe theatre is theater that is not of the mainstream. The term comes from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which was named by Robert Kemp, who described the unofficial companies performing at the same time as the second Edinburgh International Festival (1948) as a ‘fringe,’ writing: ‘Round the fringe of official Festival drama, there seems to be more private enterprise than before.’ The term has since been adopted by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and thence by alternative theaters and alternative theater festivals.

In London, the Fringe is the term given to small scale theatres, many of them located above pubs, and the equivalent to New York’s Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway theatres. There are also many unjuried theater festivals which are often called fringe festivals. These festivals, such as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Adelaide Fringe Festival, permit artists to produce a wide variety of works.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (founded 1947) is the largest arts festival in the world. Though many shows at the Edinburgh Fringe could be considered fringe theater, its remit also covers mainstream theater, comedy, music and many other genres. The second-largest fringe festival in the world is the Adelaide Fringe Festival, which evolved in the early 1970s as a reaction against the establishment and the then ‘mainstream’ Adelaide Festival of Arts. Today, although the two events are inextricably linked. The Adelaide Fringe is renowned for its innovation, spontaneity and carnival atmosphere.

The largest fringe festival in North America is the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, followed closely by the Winnipeg Fringe Theater Festival, founded in 1982 and 1988 respectively. Canada now has more Fringe Festivals than any other country in the world and each strongly adheres to the philosophy that a ‘Fringe Festival’ be unjuried, return 100% of box office proceeds back to the participating artists and remain affordable and accessible to all. The oldest and largest Fringe Festival in the United States is the Orlando Fringe.

The mechanics of a Fringe festival are fairly simple. The most important element in the administration that creates a Fringe festival as opposed to a ‘normal’ arts festival is the unjuried nature of the performances. Some festivals, notably the New York International Fringe Festival, stray from the original concept in that they pick their participants using a jury-based application process.

All performers are welcome to apply, regardless of their professional or amateur status. No restrictions are made as to the nature, style or theme of the performance. Some festivals have children’s areas, with an appropriate content limitation. Many find too many applicants for the number of available spaces; in this case, applicants are chosen based on an unrelated criteria, such as order of application or a random draw. Applicants may be divided into groups to ensure a mix of local, national and international talent.

The limitations and opportunities that the Fringe festival format presents lead to some common features. Shows are not judged or Juried, but are accepted in the order received until all performance spaces are filled. Shows are typically technically sparse; they are commonly presented in shared venues, often with shared technicians and limited technical time, so sets and other technical theater elements are kept simple. Venues themselves are often adapted from other uses. Casts tend to be smaller than mainstream theater; since many of the performing groups are traveling, and venues (and thus potential income) tend to be fairly small, expenses must usually be kept to a minimum. One-person shows are therefore quite common at Fringe festivals.

Fringe festival productions often showcase new scripts, especially ones on more obscure, edgy or unusual material. The lack of artistic vetting combined with relatively easy entry make risk-taking more feasible. While most mainstream theater shows are two or three acts long, taking two to three hours with intermissions, fringe shows tend to be closer to one hour, single-act productions. The typically lowered ticket prices of a fringe theatre show permit audiences to attend multiple shows in a single evening. Performers sometimes billet in the homes of local residents, further reducing their costs.

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